If a novelist were seeking the stereotypical and literary garret in which to work, few spaces would be as elegant as the book-lined, high-ceilinged study in Tom Wolfe’s 12-room apartment on Manhattan’s Upper East Side.
But at 81, Wolfe advises novelists and reporters to “leave the building!” In other words, get out among the people and places you’re writing about, even if it means spending a night at a Russian-run Miami strip club. Call it research.
That’s what Wolfe did while writing Back to Blood (Little, Brown, on sale Tuesday), a sprawling 704-page novel about an art forgery, set amid Miami’s ethnic and racial divisions. It’s driven by Wolfe’s enduring interests in power, sex, wealth, class and most of all, he says, “status.”
Blood (the title refers to bloodlines) is “highly journalistic,” says Wolfe, who became a literary celebrity in the 1960s and ‘70s. He pioneered the “New Journalism,” using novelistic techniques in non-fiction, including The Right Stuff, his 1979 best seller about American astronauts.
In his living room, he describes Miami as “the only city in the world where more than half the residents are recent immigrants, and not just Cubans, but Haitians and Russians and Nicaraguans. In the past 33 years, the Cubans have staged a political takeover—not through an invasion but at the ballot box! It’s probably the only city like that.”
In Blood, Wolfe’s fictional Cuban-American mayor reflects on his city’s diversity, “a hell of a thing, when you think about it. . . . I was talking to a woman about this the other day, a Haitian lady, and she says to me, ‘Dio, if you really want to understand Miami, you got to realize one thing first of all. In Miami, everyone hates everybody.”
How true is that?
“I did hear that and it was spoken with sincerity,” Wolfe says. “Leaving aside the extreme connotations of hate, Miami is a melting pot filled with objects that don’t want to melt.”
Another scene describes a tense City Hall meeting where the black police chief thinks to himself, “Every Cuban in this room thought of himself as white. But that wasn’t the way real white people thought of them. They ought to hang around Pine Crest a little or the Coral Gables. That would curl their hair for them! To the real white boys they were all brown people, colored folks, just a shade or two lighter than he was.”
Wolfe says, “That’s a typical point of view,” and notes that a city, where about 20% of the residents are black, has had four black police chiefs: “Not to woo votes, but as a kind of buffer against riots.”
In 2008 and 2009, Wolfe says he spent nearly as much time in Miami as at home in New York. He enlisted Oscar Corral, a former Miami Herald reporter and son of Cuban immigrants, as his guide and translator.
Corral, 38, says he was struck by Wolfe’s energy and interest in doing “shoe-leather-type reporting. He’d go anywhere and talk to anyone. He was always patient. He has great manners and he’d get people to open up about themselves.”
If he’s conservative in fashion and technology, Wolfe says he’s not politically, despite “what others may say.”
He defines himself as “one of the most democratic—with a small D—persons in the land.” As far back as he recalls, he has voted for the winning presidential candidate—Republicans, including George W. Bush in 2000 and 2004, and Democrats, including Obama in 2008 and Bill Clinton in 1996—with one exception. In 1992, he says he voted for George H.W. Bush, who lost to Clinton.
Both Wolfe and a few of his characters take issue with political correctness. Twice in Blood, he uses the phrase “Mexican standoff.” Evan Morris, who writes The Word Detective, a website and syndicated column on language, says the phrase is “almost certainly just another entry in the long and shameful roster of U.S. slang terms employing Mexican as a slur.”
Wolfe says, “I never even thought of the ramifications. It seem to me it’s an ethnically neutral term that’s widely used.”
The early reviews for Blood have been mixed. Booklist praises it as “shrewd, riling, and exciting.” The New York Times calls it “soapy, gripping and sometimes glib.” Wolfe says criticism “goes with the territory.”
Wolfe has begun work on his next book, a non-fiction exploration of evolution. He has ideas for another novel set in New York which “has changed a lot since Bonfire which was mostly about blacks and whites. Now, there’s all the Hispanic immigrants and gentrification in places like Harlem and Brooklyn.”